Methods for detecting power line communication

Power line communication occurs where electrical wiring is used to carry data in addition to electrical power. So that they can deliver electrical power to appliances, power lines generally must have open access points, providing an easy target for potential attackers looking to set up rogue power line networks.

Researchers at the University of Oxford have recognised the need for improved power line security and have developed a solution in the form of a novel electromagnetic receiver for the wireless detection of unauthorised power line networks and users.

Power line communication occurs where electrical wiring is used to carry data in addition to electrical power. This enables a network that already distributes electrical power, such as in a building, to also distribute data signals, essentially creating a local area network without having to install dedicated wiring. Ofcom estimates, as of 2017, that 1.5 million households in the UK have deployed power line networking technology. Further, in 2016 a worldwide standard for powerline communications networking was announced with an estimated 220 million devices working under the standard having been deployed worldwide. Power line communication also offers a viable alternative for data transmission in industrial control, embedded sensing and automotive applications.

Unfortunately, as well as permitting legitimate users to connect network devices together, power lines may also be vulnerable to malicious users constructing unmonitored data networks that could go unnoticed in buildings, simply by installing a rogue station. This could be used by the attacker to establish two-way connectivity to a target host or network for data exfiltration, traffic monitoring or as a platform for further attacks. Crucially, no specialist skills are needed for such an attack and the equipment can be bought off-the-shelf at any high-street shop. This is directly analogous to the rogue Wi-Fi threat that has spawned a global wireless intrusion detection market.

Due to their primary purpose, power lines will always need to remain relatively open; presenting an easy target for potential attackers. It is not generally practical for power lines to be segregated and physically protected to address security vulnerabilities.

Researchers based at the University of Oxford have appreciated that whilst it may be difficult to police physical connections to power line infrastructure, it is possible to wirelessly monitor power line circuits continuously for rogue signals and networks.

The researchers have constructed a novel receiver and associated methodology to scan for and detect electromagnetic signals emitted from power lines that indicate the presence of power line data networks. Using the receiver, it is possible to gather detailed information on the networks wirelessly, classify them and provide indications of networks which may present a security risk. The receiver can be deployed in the same way as existing products monitoring for rogue Wi-Fi access points, and so could be used in conjunction with (or as part of) existing security devices.

This novel technology is the subject of a patent application. Further, there is ongoing development to refine the initial prototypes of the receivers for deployment. Oxford University Innovation is now seeking commercial partners to adopt the new technology and support its future commercialisation.

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